The task at hand
SUMMIT COUNTY – Here’s a message for drug dealers: The sheriff doesn’t like you and, consequently, you probably aren’t going to like him.Recent headlines in the news attest to this: doors broken down in raids, seizures of pounds, and pounds, of pot and cash and lots of speculation about methamphetamines. And most recently, a former Frisco couple who found themselves on the receiving end of a search warrant have filed lawsuits against the law enforcement agencies that ransacked their home in search of drugs.But it’s not that the Summit County Drug Task Force has been more active this year, it’s that its administrators are being more public about the unit’s activities. Why?”People think that Summit County is a quiet community, that things that happen in the city don’t happen here,” said Summit County Undersheriff Derek Woodman. “They’re sorely mistaken.”Most sheriffs in mountain towns agree. They are seeing increases in property crimes, theft, violence and drug-related activity. But what they don’t agree on is the extent of enforcement of the laws of their county, state and country. Some, like Summit County’s, have their own drug task forces. Some, though, think the war on drugs was lost decades ago, before these task forces ever seized their first joint.This is a look at how different counties are addressing their culture and economy of chemical recreation.The force of a fewThe Summit County Drug Task Force consists of a commander, Woodman, a part-time clerical and administrative worker and two agents. The agents are officers rotated in and out by the different police departments in the county.The task force is the reincarnation of a team that covered the Fifth Judicial District overseen by the district attorney – Clear Creek, Lake, Eagle and Summit counties. Seven years ago, the task force disbanded. Five years ago, Summit County resurrected the task force with the help of state grants.In addition to donating police officers for agents, the towns of Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, contribute $15,000 annually to fund the task force. Blue River chips in $1,000. The money is matched, in varying proportions that change each year, by the Colorado Division of Justice.The task force’s administrative assistant annually fills out applications for the grant. The task force’s operating budget this year was about $185,000. Task force agents also use money from the district attorney’s office to execute drug buys.Woodman said the task force’s goal – written explicitly on those grant applications – is to develop 60 cases a year netting 40 arrests of distributors or better. In the six months between July 2002 and January 2003, agents made 50 arrests for a variety of charges.”I don’t think we’ll ever put ourselves out of work,” Woodman said.Woodman’s statement reflects the diligence of a career law enforcement officer as much as it does the fatalism of a realist. He and the task force take their work seriously, but Woodman knows it’s an uphill battle. On the one hand, Woodman said that as long as the people of the state of Colorado, and the United States, deem it appropriate that certain drugs are illegal, those laws will be enforced.But on the other hand, Woodman said, “It’s frustrating. I could send my son out with $50, and in an hour he’d come back with whatever I asked for.”There are other challenges, too. It takes time to build cases against drug offenders. The task force uses surveillance, phone records and electricity bills, for example, in addition to seized drugs and testimony to compile evidence. A case could take a year, maybe more, maybe less. But the average tenure of a drug task force agent is two years. Woodman said that, just when the agents get up to speed, they move on – a bigger agency, a bigger city with more action draws them away.The successes are what keeps the fight alive, and it’s not just arrests.”Sure, every case we build is a success,” Woodman said. “It might sound cliché, but our success is the old adage: If we can change one person’s life, get them to where they’re no longer involved in that, we did well. And we’ve had that.”Other counties and their sheriffs operate as Summit County does. Eagle County is part of a drug task force, as is Glenwood Springs, Routt County and most Front Range cities and counties.Routt County Sheriff John Warner’s office is part of GRAMNET, a task force that joins his county with Grand and Moffat counties. The battle – and it’s a battle, not a war, because drug dealers arm themselves if you call it the latter, Warner said – is uphill, but he, too, believes the task force’s efforts are effective.Warner also prides himself on the task force’s education outreach. Agents visit schools to make presentations, and the task force works closely with Steamboat Ski Area to make the slopes drug free.”For 99 percent of the people who use drugs, one of the side effects is paranoia,” Warner said. “If they’re looking over their shoulder during a deal, then we’re making a dent. And, yes, they are thinking twice.”The other viewOnly in Aspen will you find the sheriff with a personal friend who found fame and fortune writing books and stories about his drug-addled adventures. But it’s not Sheriff Bob Braudis’ acquaintance with Hunter S. Thompson that has shaped his policy toward drug law enforcement, it’s his constituents.For the past 17 years of his five terms as sheriff, Braudis has spoken out against undercover drug enforcement work and task forces, and his citizens have supported him. Braudis believes the drug war was lost 30 years ago, that drug addiction is a medical issue not a legal issue and that, for his officers, it’s an expensive, dangerous and not-so-beneficial proposition.They do enforce drug-related laws in Pitkin County. If a citizen calls in a complaint, deputies investigate. People pulled over for traffic stops with a stash in the glovebox still pout when it gets confiscated.And if other agencies need to come in to Pitkin County to conduct a sting, Braudis gives them deputies to secure a perimeter or enhance the safety of an operation. But that’s where Braudis draws the line.He doesn’t think task forces will find, much less catch, “Mr. Big.” A quarter-century ago, there were Mr. Bigs: They drove fancy cars, had trophy homes and didn’t care if anybody wondered why they didn’t have a job. These days, Braudis said, if there is a Mr. Big, he’s very insulated from legal danger. And, the Mr. Bigs that police should be going after are sitting pretty.”South of the border, we have generals loading planes,” Braudis said. “If you can’t stop it at the source, you won’t stop it on the street.”San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters agrees, even feels more strongly about the subject – he wrote a book called “Drug War Addiction.” He didn’t always feel that way, though.Masters, sheriff for 23 years and undersheriff and Telluride Police chief for five years before that, started out trying to arrest every drug offender he could. He thought that would solve the problem. The exact opposite occurred, he said.He started to see the need for a different approach, he said, after Telluride and drugs became popularly associated in former Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey’s recording hit, “Smugglers Blues,” and fans were burning his effigy.Masters likens the current attack on drugs to prohibition. In 1919, Congress approved the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Masters said that now, like the 1920s, the federal government is telling local governments what’s right and wrong, and the result is an increase in use of the prohibited substance and a rise in crime and violence surrounding it.The sheriff said he just doesn’t see the sense in it.”The year before Sept. 11 (2001), we busted 750,000 Americans for marijuana and one terrorist,” Masters said. “And (Attorney General John) Ashcroft is telling everyone we’ll fight the war on terror just like we fought the war on drugs. That’s how far from reality they are – they’re busting bong manufacturers as if bongs cause people to use drugs.” Money changes everythingSummit County Sheriff John Minor is pragmatic about the whole subject. This is a capitalist society, the sheriff said, and where there is a demand, there will be a supply. “And we try to be compassionate when we can,” Minor said.On the other hand, he is a sworn law enforcement officer, bound to uphold the law. So if people are manufacturing or growing drugs, if they are distributors of drugs and, especially, if they’re doing any of those anywhere near children, “I don’t like them,” Minor said.”Drug dealers don’t give anything back to the community, they just take,” he said. “We’re going to go after them, and they’re not going to like me.”The sheriff sees the drug task force’s mission as not so much to eradicate a problem, but manage it. Minor said the task force targets mid-level criminals – distributors, or wholesalers if you will, and dealers – more than users. All of them, however, are useful in soliciting information, so that agents can develop a web of names, connecting dots to find people at the top of the pyramid.Hopefully, this will prevent violence that has become commonplace with drug activity in cities and suburbs. Minor notes that Summit County’s criminal element is changing with the times: They protect their merchandise with video surveillance and firearms. Large quantities of drugs are often connected to gangs, as well, he said.And the sheriff is well aware that every bust could lead to potential violence.”When we bust somebody that has 50 grand in cash, that’s 50 grand that somebody’s not getting paid,” Minor said.To put the money factor in better perspective, try a simple math exercise. A recent bust in Dillon yielded $50,000 in cash and just over 50 pounds of high-grade pot. In bulk, that pot sells for $4,000 a pound. If that one dealer sells that much marijuana four times a year, that’s $800,000 a year.The sellers he sold to peddle that same pot along these lines: $50 for an eighth-ounce, to $400 for an ounce. That’s $2,400 profit on each pound for that seller, adding another $120,000 to the economy from those 50 pounds alone.If there are just 10 people in Summit County like that first wholesaler, that’s more than $9 million in marijuana money moving around the county every year. That’s the kind of money people might want to steal.”And drug dealers get ripped off, it’s not unheard of,” Minor said. “Not a lot of them report it, though.” Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or at email@example.com.
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